From the Shelf of The NPC: Ryuutama

By Anthony “LibrariaNPC” DeMinico,  13 May2020

While I took an extended hiatus from reviews at the end of 2019, and have been working from home with the COVID-19 Pandemic, it hasn’t all been breaks and slacking. While waiting for new titles to arrive, and in between all of the antics of relocating, unpacking, game design, and preparing for my new job, I started to go through my old backlog of RPGs that were sitting on my shelf, as well as visiting a few that were gifted or loaned to me to help me get back into the groove of reading for fun.

Also, since one of my Patreon backers requested the newly translated RPG Shinobigami for an upcoming review, I thought visiting one of the translated Japanese RPGs on my shelf was a good idea.

Even though it’s taken me years to do it, I’ve finally dedicated the time to reading the translated Japanese TTRPG Ryuutama.

==The Pitch==

Ryuutama (literally “dragon egg”) is a Japanese TTRPG that fans colloquially equate to “Miyazaki does Oregon Trail.” The game is based on a ideal medieval, pastoral setting, in which your heroes are common people travelling and taking journeys to nearby towns, helping people, and then “feeding” these stories to the ryuujin, the dragon psuedo-deities (played by the GM) that ensure the world runs as it should.

==What You Get==

Ryuutama is not a terribly long book, only weighing in at about 245 pages as a PDF, with over 20 of these pages consisting of full-page art, various character sheets, and forms to assist bother players and GM to track characters, journeys, and more.

The first half of the book covers character creation, basic setting info, and rule mechanics, while the latter half is rife with GM information: monsters, adventures, campaigns, and more.

Mechanically speaking, Ryuutama is simple: players roll two dice (based on their abilities, ranging from a d4 through d12), add any special modifiers, and compare it to their difficulty rating. It is a simple mechanic seen in many other places, making Ryuutama a bit familiar to most.

That said, Ryuutama does have a unique mechanic: the GMPC known as the Ryuujin (literally “Dragon Person”), which I’ll be touching upon in this review.

Honestly, I just really like them, but you’ll hopefully understand why!

==The Good==

As previously mentioned, Ryuutama has a simple core mechanic that makes rolling a simple task: roll your dice, add them, and done. As most modifiers will either add to the value or directly impact the dice (i.e. injuries reduce dice rating), it makes a lot of the fiddly bookkeeping elements at bay.

The majority of the other mechanics are simple: spells have specific effects, combat works very much like 8- and 16-bit era JRPGs (basic stat calculations, frontline vs back line, etc), and everything is easily resolved with the roll of one or two dice.

Throughout the book, readers will be presented with a large variety of artwork that would feel right at home in a feel-good Ghibli film. You won’t get the high definition, exceptionally detailed suits of armor here as we see with other modern RPGs, but rather more subdued, down-to-earth, “feel good” manga-style art that is not only appropriate, but rather endearing. 

There are also two things I love to point out for Ryuutama as selling points for new players and GMs alike.

The first is the GM mechanic of the Ryuujin. Instead of simply telling the story provided by the scenes, the GM is able to choose one of the four Ryuujin, each tied to a season and story themes, to be their GMPC. Each Ryuujin wishes to stay hidden and watch the story unfold, but there are times they have to appear, make themselves known, and assist the party if things are over their heads. This assistance varies, from time-rewinds to chasing away enemies, all tied to the Ryuujin’s level and available resources.

All things in balance, of course.

Of course, unlike other GMPC-style characters, a Ryuujin comes with a number of limitations. Using these powers actually will weaken them, and too many uses can lead to the death of a Ryuujin, leaving the party without their guardian and causing other chaotic elements in the world. Additionally, the Ryuujin only gains more abilities as the travelers “feed” stories to the Ryuujin, allowing it to learn, grow, and have more capabilities to better assist them.

Essentially, GMs are given their own PC with deity-level powers, but with a number of limitations that both keep them from the spotlight and rely on the party to assist them in unique ways.

The other point is the very game itself. The game is sincerely a slice of life, feel-good game. Yes, we have combat mechanics, but the focus of the game is the journey, the bonds formed by players and the places around them, and the stories they create and then feed to their Ryuujin. Characters don’t have typical classes, but rather “professions” that are common in most, if not all, villages, with a “type” attached to them, making each one unique. I personally love how combat isn’t a focus in each profession, and even with the “Attack” type characters, combat is still a bit of a backseat.

Everything about this game brings about that home grown, pastoral, very Japanese feel. I sincerely cannot argue that statement of “Miyazaki does Oregon Trail” that my friends mentioned, to which I often have to add “Miyazaki directs Harvest Moon and Rune Factory.” Fans of all of these tend to agree with that statement after reading Ryuutama, and I have to agree that it’s a great family and kid friendly game because of this.

==The Bad==

While the home grown, slice of life elements of Ryuutama are endearing, every village has it’s darker side.

In Ryuutama’s case, it is due to limited, yet convoluted, elements.

Not everything can be this straightforward!

To begin, Ryuutama comes pre-built with a number of limiters. We don’t have much of a setting beyond the basic “pastoral-based medieval society,” which could make it a challenge for some GMs just starting out. Additionally, the tools provided to help with the world creation aren’t anything impressive to write home about: we get a few sheets that simply ask for details about the new town/village and little else. No world map, no major towns/villages, just blank sheets to fill in with your own details.

Speaking of, the details in Ryuutama can be more of a burden than not. For example, travel plays a major part of Ryuutama, but it is often simply a “You are in Weather X with Ground Y, roll to overcome Difficulty Z.” We are given a few tips and things to throw in to make things interesting on failures, but many elements are just one-and-done.

I find this disheartening as we have a number of status ailments with assigned ratings (very JRPG inspired), but their usage is more frustrating than not. Failed a travel roll? There’s a condition. Didn’t sleep well? There’s a condition. Eat some bad food? There’s a condition.

Factor the above with the very JRPG item lists (a “fancy hat” granting bonuses that a “poor hat” won’t), and it’s almost like turning your video game experience into a tabletop game. Some may love this, but I just felt it detracted more than added.

Finally, the game may not be too friendly for a total neophyte to RPGs and Japanese culture. For example, there is a spell that summons a kotatsu (a heated and blanketed table), but a number of people I mentioned this to had no idea what a kotatsu is. Combine the need to look up and explain cultural notes with a GM-heavy travel mechanic, limited Ryuujin powers (many of which are “normal” GM tricks), and the lack of a world make this a bit daunting for brand new GMs and players.

Your mileage may vary at your table, of course!

==The Verdict==

After reading and looking over Ryuutama, I believe I will leave it at the crossroads of 3 Buns.

Ryuutama offers a very simple, friendly, down-to-earth game that is less about saving the world and more about growing as people and changing the personal world around you. It brings a wonderful collection of kid- and family-friendly elements to the table, and between the heartwarming artwork and the kind culture references, it has a special place in my heart.

Sadly, Ryuutama flounders by trying to be complicated in its simplicity via borrowing too heavily from old-school video JRPGs, being a touch too GM heavy for beginners due to world issues, and encumbered by elements that just don’t quite fit in as well as they should.

If you are a fan of JRPGs, feel-good movies and games, and want something that is fun for the whole family, consider picking up Ryuutama. Avoid it if you aren’t a fan of Japanese games, cultural notes, or would prefer a ready-to-play world out of the box.

Ryuutama was released by Kotodama Heavy Industries, and can be purchased as an e-copy on their webstore for $13, via DriveThruRPG for $14, with hardcover print copies (with included PDF) available via Indie Press Revolution for $35 (when in stock).

Anthony, better known as LibrariaNPC, wears many hats: librarian, gamemaster, playtester, NPC, and our Editor-In-Chief. You can support his work on Patreon, his tip jar, or via Ko-Fi.

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